The book of Judges is often seen to be problematic as a whole. Certainly, many elements of it need to be deeply couched in euphemism or omitted entirely if its narratives are going to be discussed in an all-ages environment. While large death tolls are described throughout, the descriptions of this violence become increasingly graphic as the book progresses. By the final chapters, the book has descended headlong into the madness of rape, dismemberment, murder, and civil war. Most works of fiction in various media that contain these same elements would be subject to criticism from the perspective of Christian morality. Yet, the book of Judges is a part of the Holy Scriptures.
Understanding the book of Judges as a whole, however, requires understanding its overarching theme and movement. The text begins with failure. The first chapter describes the failure of the tribes of Israel to take the lands allotted to them by Yahweh their God. He it was who fought for them, so this failure is a failure of their faithfulness. That many chose to enslave the Canaanite population rather than drive them out as they had been commanded is a mark of this disobedience (1:28, 30, 33). In response, the Angel of the Lord, who had accompanied Israel from Egypt and dwelt with them for more than 40 years, declares His judgment against Israel and departs (2:1-4). Despite a sorrowful reaction to this departure, no repentance took place. Israel as a whole fell to worshipping the Baals of the Canaanites (2:11-13).
In response to Israel’s wickedness, foreign invaders were sent to oppress the people as a means of discipline, to attempt to bring about repentance. When the people returned and cried out to their God, He answered by raising up a judge to restore justice by repelling these invaders. Nevertheless, these chastening did not bring about real repentance. The opening of the book lays out the pattern that would repeat itself throughout: “Yahweh raised up judges who saved them out of the hand of those who pillaged them, but they did not listen to their judges. Instead, they whored after other gods and worshipped them. They quickly turned from the path in which their fathers had walked, those who had obeyed Yahweh’s commandments, and they did not obey them. Whenever Yahweh raised up judges for them, Yahweh was with the judge and He saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For Yahweh was made compassionate by their groaning caused by those who punished and oppressed them. But when the judge died, they turned back and were even more wicked than their fathers. They chased other gods by serving them and worshipping them” (2:16-19). Not only did the cycle repeat, but the spiritual condition of the people declined continuously, giving the entire text the pattern of a downward spiral into violence and madness.
The degeneration of Israel’s tribes is accompanied by a degeneration of the quality of men called by God to serve as judge and restore order. Each judge, as the narrative continues, is successively more violent, more flawed, and more personally ambitious. This culminates with Samson, who systematically and unrepentantly violates every element of his Nazirite vows. By the end of the book, there is no judge because Israel’s tribes have gone to war with each other rather than a foreign oppressor, bent on taking vengeance and conquering each other. As 1 Samuel or 1 Kingdoms begins, it is not the final judge, the prophet Samuel, who is the problem but rather the king, Saul, whom he is pressured into anointing by the people. Israel’s death spiral is only finally stopped by David coming to reign as king, and even this respite is brief before another spiral begins that ended with the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel and the exile of Judah. Because Judges seeks to portray this downward slide, the characters and events described therein are not being held up as examples. Increasingly, as the narrative unfolds, the hearer is intended to understand that things are becoming worse and worse. The actions of the latter judges and the events which unfold in the Israelite civil war are intended to be seen as horrible and a cautionary tale of what results from the rejection of Yahweh’s commandments. Judges records a dark and horrible chapter in Israel’s early history.
Within the narrative, one episode, in particular, is often singled out as particularly troubling. This is one of two episodes related in the life of Jephthah, a judge from Gilead. This episode, involving the deliverance of his clan from the Ammonites, is troubling because it includes an instance of human sacrifice. This human sacrifice, further, is directed toward Yahweh, the God of Israel. In response to this, many recent commentators have attempted to somehow read the end of the story such that Jephthah does not actually kill and burn his daughter. That he did so, however, is quite clear from the text and the teaching of the text must be understood, not dodged.
From his introduction, Jephthah is set up as a problematic figure. He is the illegitimate son of the head of his clan, born of a prostitute (Jdg 11:1). The sons of his father’s wife, because they were younger, drove Jephthah away to maintain control of the clan against a potential usurper. Jephthah gathered around himself a cadre of ne’er-do-wells (v. 3). The land on which the clan of Gilead dwelt had belonged to the Ammonites and when the king of Ammon came to attempt to reclaim it, the elders of Gilead were willing to offer Jephthah clan leadership if he would lead them into battle against the Ammonites. This is already a break from pattern, as though God would accomplish His will through Jephthah, Jephthah was chosen not by him but by the other members of his clan.
Throughout the exchange of messengers which ensues, Jephthah’s statements reflect a distorted view of Yahweh, the God of Israel. He is first invoked by Jephthah as a divine witness to the oath of the elders of Gilead to give Jephthah rule if he is victorious in battle (v. 10-11). This in itself would be unremarkable and common practice in the ancient world. When the messengers present their cases for ownership of the land, the king of Ammon states the case that this piece of land had formerly belonged to him and the Israelites had seized it. Jephthah’s response is that the God of Israel, Yahweh, had given them the land (v. 23). He continues, however, to state that this is directly parallel to the way in which Chemosh, the moon god of the Ammonites, had given their land to them (v. 24). In attributing the possession of the lands of Ammon to Chemosh, Jephthah is directly contradicting Deuteronomy, which states that Yahweh drove out the Rephaim, specifically the giant clan of Zamzummim, before the Ammonites, the sons of Lot, and gave them the land (Deut 2:19-21). But beyond giving the glory of Yahweh to another, a grievous enough sin in and of itself, Jephthah thereby reduces Yahweh to one territorial god among many, rather than the God who created and rules the heavens and the earth. The author of Judges is here revealing that the religious teaching of the Torah, by the time of Jephthah, was unknown among the people.
After laying out this case, Jephthah announces that Yahweh will be the judge between them as to who is in the right (v. 27). He is here challenging the king of Ammon to what amounts to a collective trial by combat. In the ancient world, it was understood that a battle between peoples was also a contest between their respective gods. While it might be possible to understand this last statement by Jephthah as an affirmation that it was Yahweh alone who would judge and bring about the result, Jephthah’s vow is a sign that it this is not his understanding. Jephthah offers the Judge of all the earth a bribe. In the divine battles which were seen to accompany the wars of nations in the ancient world, it was truly rare for any nation, even when suffering a defeat, to see their gods as having been overcome by superior force. The far more common interpretation was that the god or gods had, for some reason or another, abandoned their people. This could even take the form of a god having switched sides during the battle. Sacrifices were therefore made and vows taken before entering combat in order to ingratiate one’s self to the gods who would bring victory or defeat through their sometimes fickle allegiance.
In addressing himself to Yahweh before entering battle, Jephthah does not appeal to the promises made to Abraham. He does not appeal to his own faithfulness to the God of Israel and His commandments. He does not appeal to Yahweh’s own glory and His Name and reputation over against His enemies. Instead, he promises a potentially valuable sacrifice. In fact, though often not reflected in English translation, he promises a human sacrifice. He literally says, “If you give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the door of my house to greet me…I will offer him up for a burnt offering” (v. 31). The idea that he believed that a cow or a sheep would come running out to meet him before a human strains credulity and is not how he words the oath.
Jephthah, therefore, intended to sacrifice a human to Yahweh in order to guarantee victory in battle, he just did not intend that human to be his only child, his daughter. Rather than having faith in the righteousness of God, Jephthah was invoking what was seen in the pagan world to be a powerful ritual. In a similar battle situation against Israel, the king of Moab had sacrificed his own son to Chemosh, the same god worshipped by the Ammonites (2 Kgs/4 Kgdms 3:27). Far from a sign of piety, Jephthah’s oath was an act of sacrilege and his carrying out the sacrifice of his daughter was an abomination (Jdg 11:39). Her death was not commemorated by the people as a moment of great victory in battle but as a horrific tragedy with four days of mourning every year (v. 40). It is worth noting that this creation of a new feast, not a part of the sacred calendar laid out in the Torah, is itself a sign of the religious ignorance that affected the people.
To reinforce its estimation of Jephthah, a second episode in his six-year career as judge is narrated. He led the forces of his clan, Gilead, against the tribe of Ephraim, his fellow Israelites. Identifying them by their accents, Jephthah slaughtered forty-two thousand refugees fleeing the territory he conquered (12:5-6). These events both show Jephthah’s brutality and anticipate the bloody civil war which would conclude the book of Judges. He is presented not as a heroic figure, but as a violent apostate.
Throughout the story of Jephthah, Yahweh is silent. He takes only one action, as the Spirit empowers Jephthah to be victorious over the Ammonites. This takes place not because of Jephthah’s promised sacrifice nor because of any virtue of his but because the God of Israel had indeed given them that land and He had designated that time to deliver them. He is nowhere said to have acknowledged the act of human sacrifice, let alone accepted it. Judges describes what Jephthah did, and ascribes his military victory over the Ammonites, but not over the Ephraimites, to Yahweh. The only evaluation of Jephthah given through the text is a negative one.
Though this understanding is perfectly clear from the text of Judges, it is sometimes objected that Jephthah’s name is mentioned in Hebrews 11, the famous passage describing heroes of the faith (v. 32). The reference here, however, is ambiguous. Jephthah is not actually praised here for anything. In fact, Hebrews merely states that were it not for time, there would be something to say about Jephthah and several other figures. There is no way of knowing what would have been said. There is no way, even, of knowing to which episode in Jephthah’s life reference would have been made. The list of unmentioned individuals includes other names from Judges, Barak and Samson, who are clearly presented by that text in a negative light. It is easy to imagine, for example, that mention of Barak might well have focused more on praise for Deborah’s faith. Likewise, the mention of Jephthah might have focused more on his daughter than on him. His daughter’s willingness to go to a sacrificial death is commended occasionally in later tradition, as in Pseudo-Philo. Of Jephthah himself, however, the fathers of the Church and Rabbinic Judaism are united in condemnation as a rash and ignorant man.